Billy Corgan interview: ‘We’re all living in a perpetual state of irony’

As Smashing Pumpkins return with an excellent new album, we ask what’s on Billy’s mind

© Scarlet Page

For those of us growing up in the ’90s, the Smashing Pumpkins blend of sublime, cosmic dreamgaze and raw, visceral guitars soundtracked our hopes and disaffections alike. 2014 sees their triumphant return to radio stations with the light and digestible ‘Monuments to an Elegy’, which has hints of The Cars, moments reminiscent of their mega-song ‘1979’ and an uplifting spirit to boot. I meet frontman Billy Corgan in a Knightsbridge hotel, and despite the sweltering heat in the room his 6’3” frame is shrouded in multiple layers. And he’s wearing a fisherman’s hat.

Do you feel an affinity with the UK?
‘As a kid, my first real connection with the UK was hearing my father howl with laughter at “Monty Python” in the other room, stoned.’

And how about with London?
‘In the last five years no city’s treated me better than London, in terms of getting the point that I’m making. Even if I’m not making it well, there’s at least a kind of grudging respect. It was definitely painful, though, when the band was doing really well all over the world and we were getting hammered here – because we weren’t cool enough, or this or that. That got fucking old.’

Do you think the British press has become more antagonistic?
‘I think the UK press style is now the US press style. The tabloid headline-seeking thing has become the style all over the world. Even on the BBC. Riding over here, I saw one of those things that said “Selena Gomez’s sexiest photoshoot ever…”. I think she’s an attractive woman, you know, so there’s that temptation, like: can’t hurt to look, right? But it does hurt to look, because that just perpetuates this stuff.’

Compared to the ’90s, does music still feel adventurous?
‘It does in the right context, which is why I think EDM is kicking rock’s ass so hard. If you’re a rock band, you spend your fucking money on the gear and getting there. If you’re an EDM artist, you put all your money into the lights. Music can be incredibly powerful, but I feel the acuity of our context has been stolen from us by popstars. You know, popstars now stage rock concerts. All our bells-and-whistles have been taken from us, and we’ve been too flat-footed to respond.’

‘Why do I have to cut down my songs for a bunch of punters and yobs?’

© Andra Veraart

Do you worry about the survival of the whole idea of the rock star?
‘Yes, ever since popstars stole the angst. If an alternative band steals from pop like pop steals from alternative, the alternative band gets creamed. Unless they’re being ironic [laughs]. We’re all living in a perpetual state of irony.’

Are you into any new bands?
‘This band Phantogram, and a band I work with called Ex Cops. I do see flashes of a generation coming forward that want to stop having a sort of orgiastic four-on-the-floor moment. What we call “today is the greatest day of your life” music. You know, “This festival’s so amazing, and this song’s so amazing and we all sound the same and we like that because we feel safe.”’

Do you have a favourite London gig?
‘There was a great gig very early on, when we were sort of getting the question mark from the press [at the Underworld in 1991]. Kevin Shields was there, Cobain was there. It was our “okay, we’ve arrived” gig.’

‘Monuments’ is the first part of a double LP?
‘Yeah, I told myself, “I’ll do the shiny album first and then the second one will be a little darker.” But it’s crisper and tighter, instead of wandering off into that seven-minute song thing. I carried a lot of resentment for years, like, why do I have to cut down my songs for a bunch of punters and yobs!’

Are there any of your contemporaries you still respect?
‘Most of them to me are living off fumes, or getting by with lesser works because they’re likeable. As for my generation, I feel I could take the same position I’ve always taken: I can out-write all of them and I’ll do so until the day I die.’

Listen to ‘Monuments to an Elegy’

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